Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish by Stanley Fish - Read Online
Winning Arguments
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“Fish mines cultural touchstones from Milton to ‘Married with Children’ to explain how various types of arguments are structured and how that understanding can lead to victory” — New York Times Book Review

A lively and accessible guide to understanding rhetoric by the world class English and Law professor and bestselling author of How to Write a Sentence.

Filled with the wit and observational prowess that shaped Stanley Fish’s acclaimed bestseller How to Write a Sentence, Winning Arguments guides readers through the “greatest hits” of rhetoric. In this clever and engaging guide, Fish offers insight and outlines the crucial keys you need to win any debate, anywhere, anytime—drawn from landmark legal cases, politics, his own career, and even popular film and television. A celebration of clashing minds and viewpoints, Winning Arguments is sure to become a classic. 

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062226686
List price: $9.99
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Winning Arguments - Stanley Fish

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Words Make the World

IN A FAMOUS Monty Python sketch called The Argument Clinic, a man played by Michael Palin enters an office and says to the receptionist, I’d like to have an argument, please. What is odd about this request is that it doesn’t specify what the argument is to be about. Any topic, it seems, will do, and as it turns out, no topic is put on the table, for Palin and his interlocutors (he is shunted from office to office) never proceed beyond arguing about what is and is not an argument. But of course that is a topic and, in the absence of some more substantive disagreement, it becomes substantive itself; the argument about argument fills the argumentative space and acquires a momentum of its own, and that momentum is uncontrollable.

The Palin character tries to control it and get a secure footing by putting a limit on the form argument can take. He objects that one of his argument partners (played by John Cleese) is not really arguing but just contradicting: An argument, he insists, is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, while a contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes. The reply is brief and brilliant: No it isn’t. Or, in other (and more) words, "You say that contradiction can be cleanly distinguished from argument, but I refute your point—that is, argue against it—simply by denying it and thereby putting both of us in the position of having to give reasons; you now have to explain why contradiction has no place in the field of argument, and I have to explain why contradiction can be a move in the argument game, as I have just demonstrated it is; so there! The amount of words I have had to expend in order to gloss No it isn’t" is testimony to the wonderful conciseness of the Cleese character’s retort.

This sketch teaches (at least) three lessons: (1) You can’t just engage in argument in the abstract. An abstract argument—an argument where there is nothing at stake and you are just practicing the form—is what the Palin character asks for, but before he knows it he is enmeshed in a very specific argument (about argument) and the cool distance he affects when announcing I’d like to have an argument, please gives way quickly to the exasperation that always attends the real thing. (2) You can neither avoid argument when it is offered to you nor extricate yourself from it on your terms. When the Palin character grows tired of the game and says, I’ve had enough of this, his partner-in-agon replies, No you haven’t, and it begins all over again. (3) You cannot manage argument. The career of argument is always running ahead of the intentions and desires of those who engage in it; as an arguer you’re always playing catch-up, trying to deal with the twists and turns you had not anticipated.

A fourth, more overarching, lesson follows from the first three. There are no general strategies for conducting an argument because the specific something arguments are always about will always be embedded in a social or institutional setting in relation to which some, but not all, strategies will be relevant and, at least potentially, effective. In the political arena, one tried-and-true strategy is to smear or swift boat your opponent, accusing him or her of all manner of crimes, lies, betrayals, indecencies, improprieties, and failures of judgment. But if you do that in an academic argument—an argument between two scholars about the interpretation of a poem or the correct account of a historical event—you might be rebuked and sent away because you will have flouted the decorum of the academic game. The ways of argument are context-specific, and while there are surely some general things to be said about argument, and an entire intellectual tradition called rhetoric dedicated to saying them, in the end the study of argument will be a study of the various contexts in which one encounters argument in its various forms.

One general thing that can properly be said about argument is that it is essentially the art of persuasion, the art of trying to move someone from an adherence to position A—which might be political, economic, domestic, aesthetic, military, theological, whatever—to an embracing of position B. Here is a very small example. An eleven-year-old boy wants to go to the mall with his friends. His mother says, No. He asks, Why, short for What are your reasons? She replies, Because I say so. Is that a reason? Is she making an argument? We might think that the answer to both questions is no; she’s just asserting her authority, putting her foot down. But that would be to make the mistake made by the Palin character when he declares that to contradict is not to argue. Argument is protean—ever changing, variable, mutable, kaleidoscopic, voracious—and almost anything can be its vehicle, swinging a big stick, putting on a badge, intoning a holy phrase, making the sign of the cross, wearing a uniform, speaking in a stentorian tone. In the venerable tradition that codifies and analyzes the making of arguments, the boy’s mother is performing a standard move. It is called, not surprisingly, the argument from authority (argumentum ab auctoritate) and it is listed by Aristotle as one of his twenty-eight common topics, the everyday strategies one might have recourse to in a situation of debate or dispute. As Aristotle explains in his Rhetoric, you reach for the argument from authority in order to link your view to a prestigious source such as the Gods, or one’s father, or one’s teachers. You declare, I must be right because the Pope or the Supreme Court or Plato or Abraham Lincoln says what I say. (It is a nice point that Aristotle, after naming the argument from authority, became one.)

The argument from authority was given a television spot some years ago when the brokerage firm E. F. Hutton ran a series of famous ads in which one of the actors begins a sentence with these words: My broker, E. F. Hutton, says . . . Immediately all those within earshot stop whatever they were doing and lean toward the speaker in order to hear, and perhaps profit by, E. F. Hutton’s advice. A voice-over intones the message: When E. F. Hutton speaks, everyone listens. E. F. Hutton authorizes itself as an authority at the same moment its spokesman cites that authority (self-referentially) as an argument. The mother of the eleven-year-old boy does the same thing: she assumes the authority she then cites as a reason; the full version of Because I say so is Because I’m your mother and I say so. In both cases authority is at once claimed and created by the rhetorical act of invoking it.

I tried that once and got my head handed to me. My six-year-old daughter, her mother, and I were sitting eating dinner. Conversation was difficult because my daughter was interacting (the reason for the quotation marks around the word will soon be obvious) with our two dachshunds, who were under the table. I said to her in that I’m your father voice, Susan, don’t play with the dachshunds. She showed me her hands in a classic look, Pa, no hands gesture, and said, I’m not playing with the dachshunds. I regrouped and tried again: Susan, don’t kick the dachshunds. She pointed to the gentle motions of her feet and said, I’m not kicking the dachshunds. Determined to come up with a formulation so general and inclusive that it would leave no room for further argument, I said in a tone of (premature) triumph, "Susan, don’t do anything with the dachshunds. Not missing a beat, she replied, You mean I don’t have to feed them anymore?" (Score: six-year-old, 3; thirty-five-year-old college professor, 0.)

Two things were immediately clear. (1) This could have gone on forever: she would have been able to recontextualize any supposedly hard-and-fast statement I came up with in a way that altered its meaning and evaded its intended force. (2) My attempt to assert the authority of a father with the help of my adult rhetorical skills was a dismal flop. I am ashamed to say that I brought the matter to a close by slapping her (itself an argument, but a suspect one), an action that sealed her triumph rather than reversing it. I was showing myself to be both a bad father and a hapless debater. I neither exercised the supposedly natural authority of a parent nor created an authority by an artful use of words.

In the context of these examples, one might ask, is a rhetorically achieved authority inferior to the real thing, to an authority established by an independent, nonrhetorical measure, an authority we might call natural as opposed to confected? Or are all authorities manufactured rather than found, which would mean that all authorities, even those that present themselves as undoubted and self-evident, are rhetorical constructions and therefore vulnerable to challenge, as I certainly was in the interaction with my daughter? That is a question we shall return to repeatedly—and let me tip my hand by saying that the second alternative is the correct one.

Although the argument from authority is always presented as being in need of no other support but itself—this is the way it is and there’s nothing else to say—its force is a function of arguments already in place. You can’t make an argument for authority unless the question of what is and is not an authority has been answered. So, as we have already seen, the invocation of an authority often goes hand in hand with its creation or at least its attempted creation. This is often what happens in the law, where the argument from authority is called precedent or stare decisis. Precedent is the practice of citing past decisions of courts in support of a present holding: judges say, we decide the case this way because it squares with what the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said in Smith v. Jones or Black v. White.

Precedents are described in the legal literature as either binding or persuasive. The truth is that they are binding if persuasive, if they have been successfully argued for. In response to the citing of a precedent, one can always dispute its relevance by saying that another case would be more on point, or dispute its status as a precedent by saying that it does not stand for the proposition you want to advance. Merely to call a prior case a precedent will not be decisive; it must be linked in a persuasive way with the issues thought to be in play in the present case. There has to be an argument to support the argument. And the effort might fail; the relevant audience, a judge or a court, may remain unpersuaded, just as the boy who is told he can’t go to the mall may continue to press his case, my daughter may continue to play with the dogs, and the TV viewer may decide to stay with his current broker rather than come over to E. F. Hutton.

This is a key point: failure, at least as a possibility, is a condition of argument, for argument is, as Aristotle and everyone after him has said, the realm of the probable, the medium of exchange we engage in when the field of inquiry is structured by doubt and the absolute authority of God’s word or a mode of perfect calculation is not available. (If it were available, doubt would soon be dispelled, and there would be no reason to argue.) In the absence of such an authority the response to doubt is to argue, to put forward theses and proofs in the hope the matter can be clarified to the satisfaction of at least a majority of those in the relevant audience.

And that of course does happen, but not in a final way. Argument could be final in its effect only if it were rooted in an objective ground that narrowed the area of doubt, present and future, to nothing. But since the theses and proofs argument brandishes are themselves disputable, the victory of any set of them and the establishing of consensus will only be temporary, will last only so long as the newly urged theses and proofs (or the same old ones repackaged) unsettle the consensus and put in place—again temporarily—a new one. In a world bereft of transcendence, argument cannot achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion (and may not do even that), a resolving of the issue that lasts only until a more powerful act of persuasion supplants it.

One might think that the cycle of arguments beating down and supplanting previous arguments might be broken by some independent yardstick—some yardstick outside the arena of argument—that gives us criteria for distinguishing the good arguments from the bad ones. But this would be a possibility only if such a yardstick could be uncontroversially identified. It is not that there are no such yardsticks—they are offered all the time—it’s just that once offered they become objects of controversy themselves; they become fodder for the forensic wars they were supposed to put a stop to. Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently. Then argument would be a matter of deduction from universally established principles; it would be a tool of those principles, a tool that could be discarded when it performed its merely instrumental task of serving something larger and more abiding than itself.

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where God and Truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences, and the form they take at any moment will be the result of a proposition successfully urged, of an argument: believe me, this is what God is like and what he wants, or, believe me, this is the truth of the matter. Rhetorically created authorities are all we have; absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may hope someday to see, but until that day we must make do with the epistemological resources available to us in our fallen condition; we must make do with argument. For all intents and purposes, and as far as we know or can know, we live in a world of argument. Indeed, arguments about the world come first, the world comes second.

The Desire for Another World

That conclusion has always been resisted by those who see in it the end of reasoned discourse and of the ability to say of something that it is right or wrong. If nothing, not even truth, can stand against the power of words, if someone skilled in speaking can, as Aristotle put it, make the worse appear the better, all is lost and we might as well throw up our hands and do whatever we like. It is in the context of such a fearsome prospect that rhetoric has gotten bad press and been stigmatized as the medium of charlatans, deceivers, propagandists, admen, all of whom take advantage of man’s susceptibility to base and illegitimate appeals and perfect the art of leading hearers by the nose to conclusions that serve some special interest rather than the interests of society.

Francis Bacon, one of the founders of the scientific method, warned in the early seventeenth century that the project of apprehending the true divisions of nature (a nice definition of science’s aim) is always being torpedoed by words that refuse to be confined to the modest task of mirroring a prior reality and instead offer themselves as a substitute for the facts they should be faithfully representing. Bacon believed that the power of language to lead men astray is one of the unhappy consequences of the Fall. The tendency of fallen creatures to love the words they produce more than the truth the words supposedly serve is an effect, he says, of that venom which the Serpent infused . . . which makes the mind of man to swell.

No such theological speculations inform the best-known modern example of the antirhetorical stance, George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (1946). In this famous and influential essay, Orwell argues that the decay of political conditions—he cites the rise of fascism and communism—goes hand in hand with the decay of linguistic conditions: the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language . . . the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of dictatorship. If your language goes wrong, your politics will go wrong and vice versa. And what does it mean for language to go wrong? It means that language is guiding thought rather than the other way around: the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them, that is, allow them to define the shape of fact as opposed to allowing the shape of fact to dictate the choice of words.

The way to avoid this unhappy situation, Orwell counsels, is "to think wordlessly, and then, if you want